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Peeps at Many Lands: Australia
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A “Sleeping Beauty” land — The coming of the English — Early explorations — The resourceful Australian.

The fairy-story of the Sleeping Beauty might have been thought out by someone having Australia in his mind. She was the Sleeping Beauty among the lands of the earth — a great continent, delicately beautiful in her natural features, wonderfully rich in wealth of soil and of mine, left for many, many centuries hidden away from the life of civilization, finally to be wakened to happiness by the courage and daring of English sailors, who, though not Princes nor even knights in title, were as noble and as bold as any hero of a fairy-tale.

How Australia came to be in her curious isolated position in the very beginning is not quite clear. The story of some of the continents is told in their rocks almost as clearly as though written in books. But Australia is very, very old as a continent — much older than Europe or America or Asia — and its story is a little blurred and uncertain partly for that reason.

Look at the map and see its shape — something like that of a pancake with a big bite out of the north-eastern corner. In the very old days Australia was joined to those islands on the north — the East Indies — and through them to Asia; but it was countless ages ago, for the animals and the plants of Australia have not the least resemblance to those of Asia. They represent a class quite distinct in themselves. That proves that for a very long time there has been no land connection between Australia and Asia; if there had been, the types of flower and of beasts would be more nearly kindred. There would be tigers and elephants in Australia and emus in Asia, and the kangaroo and other marsupials would probably have disappeared. The marsupial, it may be explained, is one of the mammalian order, which carries its young about in a pouch for a long time after they are born. With such parental devotion, the marsupials would have little chance of surviving in any country where there were carnivorous animals to hunt them down; but Australia, with the exception of a very few dingoes, had no such animals, so the marsupials survived there whilst vanishing from all other parts of the earth.

When Australia was sundered from Asia, probably by some great volcanic outburst (the East Indies are to this day much subject to terrible earthquakes and volcanic outbreaks, and not so many years ago a whole island was destroyed in the Straits of Sunda), the new continent probably was in the shape somewhat of a ring, with very high mountains facing the sea, and, where now is the great central plain, a lake or inland sea. As time wore on, the great mountains were ground down by the action of the snow and the rain and the wind. The soil which was thus made was in part carried towards the centre of the ring, and in time the sea or lake vanished, and Australia took its present form of a great flat plain, through which flow sluggish rivers — a plain surrounded by a tableland and a chain of coastal mountains. The natives and the animals and plants of Australia, when it first became a continent, were very much the same, in all likelihood, as now.

Thus separated in some sudden and dramatic way, Australia was quite forgotten by the rest of the world. In Asia, near by, the Chinese built up a curious civilization, and discovered, among other things, the use of the mariner’s compass, but they do not seem to have ever attempted to sail south to what is now known as Australasia. The Japanese, borrowing culture from the Chinese, framed their beautiful and romantic social system, and, having a brave and enterprising spirit, became seafarers, and are known to have reached as far as the Hawaiian Islands, more than halfway across the Pacific Ocean to America; but they did not come to Australia. The Indian Empire rose to magnificent greatness; the Empires of Babylon, of Nineveh, of Persia, came and went. The Greeks, and the Romans later, penetrated to Hindustan. The Christian era came, and later the opening up of trade with the East Indies and with China.

But still Australia slept, in her out-of-the-way corner, apart from the great streams of human traffic, a rich and beautiful land waiting for her Fairy Prince to waken her to greatness. There had been, though, some vague rumours of a great island in the Southern Seas. A writer of Chios (Greece) 300 years before the Christian era mentions that there existed an island of immense extent beyond the seas washing Europe, Asia, and Africa. It is thought that Greek soldiers who had accompanied Alexander the Great to India had brought rumours from the Indians of this new land. But if the Indians knew of Australia, there is no trace of their having visited the continent.

Marco Polo, the Venetian traveller, who explored the East Indies, speaks of a Java Major as well as a Java Minor, and in that he may refer to Australia; but he made no attempt to reach the land. Some old maps fill up the ocean from the East Indies to the South Pole with a vague continent called Terra Australis; but plainly they were only guessing, and did not have any real knowledge.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Spanish and Portuguese sailors pushed on bravely with the work of exploring the East Indies, and some of their maps of the period give indications of a knowledge of the existence of the Australian Continent. But the definite discovery did not come until 1605, when De Quiros and De Torres, Spanish Admirals, sailed to the East Indies and heard of the southern continent. They sailed in search of it, but only succeeded in touching at some of the outlying islands. One of the New Hebrides De Quiros called “Terra Australis del Espiritu Santo” (the Southern Land of the Holy Ghost), fancying the island to be Australia. That gave the name “Australia,” which is all that survives to remind us of Spanish exploration.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Dutch sailors set to work to search for the new southern land, and in 1605, 1616, and 1617 undoubtedly touched on points of Australia. In 1642 Tasman — from whom Tasmania, a southern island of Australia, gets its name — made important discoveries as to the southern coast. He called the island first Van Diemen’s Land, after Maria Van Diemen, the girl whom he loved; but this name was afterwards changed. Maria Island, off the coast of Tasmania, still, however, keeps fresh the memory of the Dutch sailor’s sweetheart.

But none of these nations was destined to be the Fairy Prince to waken Australia out of her long sleep. That privilege was kept for the British race; we cannot but think happily, for no Spanish or Dutch colony has ever reached to the greatness and the happiness of an Australia, a Canada, or a South Africa. It is in the British blood, it seems, to colonize happily. The gardeners of the British race know how to “plant out” successfully. They shelter and protect the young trees in their far-away countries through the perils of infancy, and then let them grow up in healthy and vigorous independence. This wise method is borrowed from family life. If a child is either too much coddled, or too much kept under in its young days, it will rarely grow to the best and most vigorous manhood or womanhood. British colonies grow into healthy nations just as British schoolboys grow into healthy men, because they are, at an early stage, taught to be self-reliant.

It was not until 1688 that Australia was in any way explored by the English Captain, William Dampier. His reports on the new land were not very flattering. He spoke of its dry, sandy soil, and its want of water. This Sleeping Beauty had a way of pretending to be ugly to the new-comer.

From 1769 to 1777 Captain Cook carried on the first thorough British exploration of Australia, and took possession of it and New Zealand for the British Crown. In 1788, just a century after its first exploration by a British seaman, Australia was actually occupied by Great Britain, “the First Fleet” founding a settlement on the shores of Port Jackson, by the side of a little creek called the Tank Stream. That was the beginning of Sydney, at present one of the greatest cities of the British Empire.

A great continent had been thus entered. The Sleeping Beauty was aroused from the slumber of centuries. But very much had yet to be done before she could “marry the Prince and then live happily ever afterwards.” The story of how that was done, and how Australia was explored and settled, is one of the most heroic of our British annals. True, no wild animals or warlike tribes had to be faced; but vast distances of land which of itself produced little or no food for man, the long waterless stretches, the savage ruggedness of the mountains, set up obstacles far more awesome because more strange. Man had to contend, not with wild animals, whose teeth and claws he might evade, nor with wild men whose weapons he could overmatch with his own, but with Nature in what seemed always a hostile and unrelenting mood. It almost seemed that Nature, unwilling to give up to civilization the last of the lonely lands of the earth, made a conscious effort to beat back the advance of exploration and civilization.

On the little coastal settlement famine was soon felt. The colonists did not understand how to get crops from the soil. They attempted to follow the times and the manners of England; but here they were in the Antipodes, where everything was exactly opposite to English conditions. There were no natural grain-crops; there were practically no food-animals good to eat. The kangaroo and wallaby provide nowadays a delicious soup (made from the tails of the animals), but the flesh of their bodies is tough and dark and rank. Even so it was in very limited supply. The early settlers ate kangaroo flesh gladly, but they were not able to get enough of it to keep them in meat.

Communication with England, whence all food had to come, was in those days of sailing-ships slow and uncertain. At different times the first settlement was in actual danger of perishing from starvation and of being abandoned in despair at ever making anything useful of a land which seemed unable to produce even food for white inhabitants.

Fortunately, those thoughts of despair were not allowed to rule. The dogged British spirit saved the position. The conquest of Nature in Australia was perseveringly carried through, and Great Britain has the reward to-day in the existence of an all-British continent having nearly 5,000,000 of population, who are the richest producers in the world from the soil.

The Barrier of the Blue Mountains.

After the early settlers had learned with much painful effort that the coast around Sydney would produce some little grain and fruit and grass for cattle, there was still another halt in the progress of the continent. West of Sydney, about forty miles from the coast, stretched the Blue Mountains, and these it was found impossible to cross. No passes existed. Though not very lofty, the mountains were savagely wild. The explorer, following a ridge or a line of valley with patience for many miles, would come suddenly on a vast chasm; a cliff-face falling absolutely perpendicularly 1,000 feet or so would declare “No road here.” Nowadays, when the Blue Mountains have been conquered, and they are traversed by roads and railways, tourists from all parts of the world find great joy in looking upon these wonderful gorges; but in the days of the explorers they were the cause of many disappointments — indeed, of many tragedies. Men escaping from the prisons (Australia was first used as a reformatory by Great Britain) would attempt to cross the Blue Mountains on their way, as they thought, to China and freedom, always to perish miserably in the wild gorges.

Finally, the Blue Mountains were conquered by the explorers Blaxland, Lawson, and Wentworth. Two roads were cut across them, one from Sydney, one from Windsor, about thirty miles north from Sydney. The passing of the Blue Mountains opened up to Australia the great tableland, on which the chief mineral discoveries were to be made, and the vast interior plains, which were to produce merino wool of such quality as no other land can equal.

From that onwards exploration was steadily pushed on. Sometimes the explorers went out into the wilderness with horses, sometimes with camels; other tracts of land were explored by boat expeditions, following the track of one of the slow rivers. The perils always were of thirst and hunger. Very rarely did the blacks give any serious trouble. But many explorers perished from privation, such as Burke and Wills (who led out a great expedition from Melbourne, which was designed to cross the continent from north to south) and Dr. Leichhardt. Even now there is some danger in penetrating to some of the wilder parts of the interior of Australia without a skilful guide, who knows where water can be found, and deaths from thirst in the Bush are not infrequent.

One device has saved many lives. The wildest and loneliest part of the continent is traversed by a telegraph line, which brings the European cable-messages from Port Darwin, on the north coast, to Adelaide, in the south. Men lost in the Bush near to that line make for its route and cut the wire. That causes an interruption on the line; a line-repairer is sent out from the nearest repairing-station, and finds the lost man camped near the break. Sometimes he is too late, and finds him dead.

In the west, around the great goldfields, where water is very scarce, white explorers have sometimes adopted a way to get help which is far more objectionable. The natives in those regions are very reluctant to show the locality of the waterholes. The supply is scanty, and they have learned to regard the white man as wasteful and inconsiderate in regard to water. But a white explorer or traveller has been known to catch a native, and, filling his mouth with salt, to expose him to the heat of the sun until the tortures of thirst forced him to lead the white party to a native well. But these are rare dark spots on the picture. The records of Australian exploration, as a whole, are bright with heroism.

The early pioneer in Australia — called a “squatter” because he squatted on the land where he chose — enjoyed a picturesque life. Taking all his household goods with him, driving his flocks and herds before him, he moved out into the wilderness looking for a place to settle or “squat.” It was the experience of the “Swiss Family Robinson” made real. The little community, with its waggons and tents, its horses, oxen, sheep, dogs, perhaps also with a few poultry in one of the waggons, would have to live for many months an absolutely self-contained life. The family and its servants would provide wheelwrights, blacksmiths, carpenters, veterinary surgeons, cattle-herds, milkers, shearers, cooks, bridge-builders, and the like. The children brought up under those conditions won not only fine healthy frames, but an alertness of mind, a wideness of resource which made them, and their children after them, fine nation-builders.

I am tempted, in illustration of this, to quote from a larger work of mine, “Australia,” an instance of my own observation of the “resourceful Australian”:

“Without touch of cap, or sign of servility, the swagman came up.

“‘Gotter a job, boss?’

“‘No chance; but you can go round and get rations.’

“‘I wanter job pretty bad. Times have been hard. Perhaps you recollect me — Jim Stone. You had me once working on the Paroo.’

“It was a blazing hot day in Central Queensland on one of the big cattle stations out from the railway line, a station which had not yet reached the dignity of fencing. The boss remembered that Jim Stone ‘was a good sort,’ and that it was forty miles to the next chance of a job. And there was always something to be done on a station.

“‘All right, Stone. I think I can put you on to something for a month or two.’

“‘Thanks. Start now?’

“‘Look. I have got a few men on digging tanks, about thirty miles out. It’s north-north-east. You can pick up their camp?’


“‘Well, I want you to take a bullock-dray out, with stores, and bring back anything they want sent back.’

“‘Yes. Where are the bullocks?’

“‘I haven’t got a team broken in. But there’s old Scarlet-Eye and two others broken in. You’ll pick them up along that little creek there, six miles out’; he pointed indefinitely into the heat haze on the plain, where there seemed to be some trees on the horizon. ‘Collar them, and then you’ll find the milkers’ herd right back of the homestead, only a few miles. Punch out seven of the biggest and make up your team.’

“‘Yes. Where’s ther dray?’

“‘Behind the blacksmith’s shed there. By the way, there are no yokes, but you’ll find some bar-iron and some timber at the blacksmith’s shed. Knock out some yokes. I think there’s one chain. You can make up another with some fencing wire.’


“And this Australian casual worker (at 30s. a week and rations) went his way cheerfully. He had to find some odd bullocks six miles out, in the flat, grey, illimitable plain; then find the herd of milkers somewhere else in that vague vastness, and break seven of them to harness; fix up a dray and make cattle yokes; and then go out into the depths to find a camp thirty miles out, without a fence or a track, and hardly a tree, to guide him.

“He did it all, because to him it was quite ordinary. The freshly-broken-in cattle had to be kept in the yokes for a week, night and day, else they would have cleared out. That was the only real hardship, in his opinion, and the cattle had to suffer that. He was content to be surveyor, waggon-builder, blacksmith, subduer of beasts, man of infinite pluck, resource, and energy, for 30s. a week and rations! And he was a typical sample of the ‘back-country Australian.’”

In the Australian Bush most children can milk a cow, ride a horse, or harness him into a cart, snare or shoot game, kill a snake, find their way through the trackless forest by the sun or the stars, and cook a meal. In the cities, too, they are, though less skilled in such things, used to do far more for themselves than the average European child.

After the squatters in Australia came the gold-diggers. Gold was discovered in Victoria and in New South Wales. At first, strangely enough, an effort was made to prevent the fact being known that gold was to be found in Australia. Some of the rulers of the colony feared that the gold would ruin and not help the country. And certainly in the very early days of the gold-digging rushes, much harm was done to the settled industries of the land through everybody rushing away to the diggings. Farms were abandoned, workshops deserted, the sailors left their ships, the shepherds their sheep, the shop-keepers their shops — all with the gold fever. But that early madness soon passed away, and Australia got the benefit of the gold discoverers in a great increase of population. Most of those who came to dig gold remained to dig potatoes and other more certain wealth out of the land.

Do you remember the tale of the ancient wise man whose two sons were lazy fellows? He could not get them by any means to work in the vineyard. As long as his own hands could toil he tended the vineyard, and maintained his idle sons. But on his death-bed he feared for their future. So he made them the victims of a pious fraud. “There is a great sum in gold buried in the vineyard,” he told them with his dying breath. “But I cannot tell you where. You must find that for yourselves.”

Tempted by the promise of quick fortune, the idle sons dug everywhere in the vineyard to find the buried treasure. They never came across any actual gold, but the good effect of their digging was such that the vineyard prospered wonderfully and they grew rich from its fine crops.

So it was, in a way, with Australia. The gold discoverers did much good by attracting people to the country in search of gold who, though they found no gold, developed the other resources of a great country.

When the yields from the alluvial goldfields decreased there was a great demand from the out-of-work diggers and others for land for farming, and the agricultural era began in Australia. Since then the growth of the country has been sound, and, if a little slow, sure. It has been slow because the ideal of the people has always been a sound and a general well-being rather than a too-quick growth. “Slow and steady” is a good motto for a nation as well as an individual.

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